5 ways to control your DNA destiny

Some genetic traits are easier to defy than others, like your mom's mousy hair and petite stature. (Bring on the highlights and heels!) Others, such as cancer or diabetes, are not so simple to escape. But now you can reduce your risk with proven tips for protecting your health from head to toe. Where to start:


You're young, energetic, active-ticker trouble is probably the least of your worries. But heart disease is ageless, and up to 80 percent of heart attacks in women younger than 45 are due to genetics, says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Scientists have pinpointed a gene variant linked to a 30 to 40 percent higher risk for heart disease in women under age 60, reports Science. That's considered early onset, though the disease itself starts to take hold long before. "Sometime in the next decade, we hope to develop screening tests for this and other gene variants. If you had one, you could make lifestyle changes to help prevent heart disease before warning signs appear," Arnett says.

Override your DNA. If you want to lower your risk for heart disease, the same rules always apply: Maintain a healthy weight and keep your cholesterol and blood pressure levels low, Arnett says. Some numbers to know: Your body-mass index, or height-to-weight ratio, should be between 18.5 and 24.9 (calculate yours); and shoot for a waist circumference of less than 35 inches. When it comes to cholesterol, your LDL, "bad," cholesterol should be less than 100; your HDL, "good," cholesterol above 50; and your triglycerides below 150. Finally, a healthy blood pressure measurement falls below 120/80. If one or more of your numbers is off, talk to your M.D. about getting them where they need to be, whether through diet, exercise or medication. And bring up any family history of heart disease, a major risk factor.

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Some day, younger women might be able to find out how long they can wait before trying to get pregnant. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have discovered nearly 350 genes related to fertility, which may hold the key to causes of early infertility. "We hope to narrow down the genes with the greatest impact on fertility and test women to find out who carries defective versions; those who do can consider having children earlier," says study author Diego Castrillon, M.D.

Override your DNA. If any woman in your family has gone through menopause before age 40, or if you have erratic periods, ask your ob/gyn for a blood workup that includes a follicle-stimulating-hormone test; high FSH levels may indicate your ovaries aren't functioning normally. Any woman can enhance her fertility by not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and practicing safer sex. (STDs like chlamydia can damage reproductive organs.) And if you've been trying to get pregnant for a year (six months if you're older than age 35), ask for a referral to a fertility specialist: About 65 percent of women who seek medical assistance give birth successfully.

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Fair, olive, dark-whatever complexion you got from your folks, it may have come with a risk for melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer. People who inherit one or more variant forms of the MC1R gene are 6 to 13 times more likely to develop the disease, found a study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. And 68 percent of patients with basal cell carcinoma, the most prevalent form of skin cancer, have a single gene mutation in common, report scientists at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Override your DNA. Genes play a role in 40 percent of melanomas, which means the majority of cases are preventable. Limit sun exposure and always wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even in winter. Also, see your derm once a year and do monthly self-exams. Vigilant habits helped 69 percent of people discover melanomas in earlier, more treatable stages in a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

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The next time you blank on a coworker's name, tell her it's your folks' fault. "There are certain genes that play a crucial role in cognition and learning," says Zaldy S. Tan, M.D., director of education at the Brigham and Women's Hospital Division of Aging in Boston. But even if you have the memory of an elephant, you may be carrying one or two copies of the apoE-e4 gene variant, which increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's later in life. There is a test for the apoE-e4 variation, but many cases of the disease are found in people who don't have it, so screening won't tell you much.

Override your DNA. The best way to maintain a sharp mind is to keep both your brain and body busy. "Exercise helps prevent plaque buildup in your brain that has been linked to Alzheimer's, while mental stimulation keeps neurons firing away," Dr. Tan says. One activity that gets you moving and thinking: dancing, which was linked to a 76 percent reduced risk for dementia, finds research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York. Samba, anyone?

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One more reason to hate that skinny celeb who claims she never diets? She might not be fibbing after all. Instead, the lucky slim one may have been spared the FTO gene variant: Those who had two copies of it weighed 7 pounds more on average than those who didn't, according to a study in Obesity Reviews. "One theory is that the FTO variant causes you to eat more or store more calories as fat," says Louis Aronne, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Override your DNA. Blame genes for your extra pounds all you want-it won't help you lose them. One tack that might: Act more Amish. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that Amish people with the FTO variant who got three to four hours of daily activity such as brisk walking or gardening were less likely to be overweight. "Genes haven't changed in the past 30 years, but obesity rates have skyrocketed," Dr. Aronne says. "Clearly, it's much more than genetics." Find more happy weight habits.

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